Reflections on the Sabah election outcome

In any contest there are winners and losers. Congratulations to the winning parties. They now have to deliver.

In Malaysia, governments are now short lived with an average life span of two years. There is no guarantee there won’t be any more leapfrogging or switching of allegiance to PH, PN, MN, GRS or any other concocted abbreviation designed to confuse the people. The players are cut from the same cloth.

The question on everybody’s mind is what went wrong with Warisan’s campaign which led to its dismal performance.

The lower voter turnout and the use by Warisan Plus, Upko and PKR of their own symbols could be explained as contributing factors for their poor showing. But this doesn’t explain everything. DAP, which contested under the Warisan banner, did well, winning six of the seven seats it contested. The Chinese voters were solidly behind Warisan.

Could a unified symbol have helped Upko and PKR win more seats? The sheer number of contenders – 447 in total – and gerrymandering of 13 new seats did not help the situation as the voters had more choice than ever before to split votes.

Anwar Ibrahim’s announcement that he had the numbers to form the federal government in the final stages of the campaigning added a new factor in the campaign as Shafie Apdal and Anwar are in their own contest to become the prime minister of Malaysia.

Overall, it did not help Shafie’s position as Anwar had jumped the gun over his rival.

There were rumours that Shafie’s deputy, Darell Leiking, who is already an MP and contesting at state level, was being groomed to become the next chief minister if Shafie moved up to the federal level.

What were the issues in the election campaign and did they really matter? There were accusations of money politics as usual but that’s been common over the past decades. While the urban folk may not be moved by money politics, it may matter to the rural folk as a few hundred ringgit may make a difference in the short term. But it still does not explain why Warisan fared badly in many areas.

Aside from money politics, what were the issues the people of Sabah were concerned about? The much talked about MA63 and the illegal immigrants issues were there in earlier elections. The opposition tried to make the Suluk heritage stick and frighten people that Shafie was sympathetic to the illegal population that had flooded Sabah for decades.

Shafie’s attempts to solve the matter by issuing a new pass when Muhyiddin Yassin was the home minister backfired, leading to the Kimanis by-election loss in January.

Another distraction which did not help Warisan was the former federal tourism minister Mohamaddin Ketapi’s loose tongue, which discredited the armed forces. It became election fodder and Shafie was forced to apologise on Mohamaddin’s behalf. Shafie made a similar gaffe in 2018 when he criticised Rela.

During the election campaign, Warisan came out with a slick campaign, some say a copy book of Obama’s campaign of hope and unity, and building around the cult personality of party leader Shafie.

The slogan “We are here to build a nation, not a particular race or religion” may resonate with a nation suffering from race and religion issues, especially in Malaya, but it’s like preaching to the converted in Sabah, where there is little issue over the matter.

It would be a nice platform or slogan if Shafie were to contest for the prime ministership, but then this was a state election.

The unity videos and slogan which resonated well with the Malaysian public may have lulled the Sabah urban voters into slumber while their opponents were attacking Warisan over the illegal immigrants issue, the economy, and the bread and butter issues involving socio-economic development of the state. In their haste to deny federal control and dominance of state matters, they may have downplayed these bread and butter issues, especially in the rural areas.

The well-oiled machinery and military discipline of Barisan Nasional/Umno were still there despite some of their leaders being convicted or facing trial for massive corruption.

The “Abah” factor cannot be discounted as Muhyiddin Yassin’s popularity is evident although his party has yet to establish roots in Sabah. Sabahans were so caught up in the feel good factor of the slick emotional heart tugging videos that they probably forgot the reality out there.

People need to be fed, people need jobs, people want economic and infrastructural development. Warisan should have promised to solve these issues instead of just talking about unity, which does not put food on anyone’s table.

Muhyiddin was continuously reminding Sabahans they could only benefit from a closer relationship with the federal government. The statement, made during the election campaign, by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mustapa Mohamed of the setting up of a special Cabinet committee to deal with Sabah’s high poverty was seen by voters as a positive sign.

Also, the statement from a “director” of the Institute for Development Studies giving a bleak economic outlook for Sabah may have spooked many voters and investors.

Shafie’s leadership was also attacked many times, especially his “poor handling” of the economy. To be fair to Shafie, the Covid-19 situation complicated matters and Sabah’s economic problem was not entirely his fault. But giving excuses when the people wanted results did not favour Shafie going into the election.

Also, backtracking on the Kaiduan dam and Tg Aru development had chipped away at the party’s credibility.

Shafie gambled by calling for a snap election and lost. He had very little choice.

In hindsight, Shafie should have listened more to the captains of industry and professionals who were willing to give his young government a chance.

It is now a big test for a young party that has not developed a culture of tight discipline and struggle and it remains to be seen whether Warisan members are made of sterner stuff and can become a constructive opposition. We can only hope for the best.

 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.